Almost President: What it's like to lose

Almost President: The Agony of Defeat
Almost President: The Agony of Defeat

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Almost President: The Agony of Defeat 01:32
"Almost President: The Agony of Defeat" is the story of what happens when you lose the presidency. Watch Gloria Borger's special report Saturday, October 1, at 8 p.m. ET.

Washington (CNN)When America elects a new president, the focus of the nation turns to where it should be -- on the winner.

And in that same instant, the defeated challengers fade from the center of the national universe back to a life without Secret Service, adoring crowds, and the daily high-wire of a presidential campaign.
They become part of an elite group of American politics that none of them wanted to join: the runners-up for the presidency.
    What is it like to spend years getting on and off planes, kissing babies, wolfing down junk food, shaking thousands of hands, barely sleeping, while risking failure in front of the whole world?
    In other words, what is it like to run for president -- only to see your life's work go up in smoke on a single night in November?
    America loves a winner, but in a few short months, either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton will lose the presidential race. One of them will experience the most spectacular failure in American life.
    It's hard to imagine what that's like. In his seminal political book, "What It Takes," the late Richard Ben Cramer describes losing as a "great national fireball of failure." I wanted to understand what that would be like, but the losers of presidential races don't like to dwell on their second-place experiences. In some cases, they have never spoken about it.
    Since the 2012 election, I set out to find out what being a runner-up is like on this huge national stage. In an odd way, it almost became my professional hobby, trying to catch some time with these men to discuss something that's not easy to talk about.
    CNN Special Report: Almost President: The Agony of Defeat
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      CNN Special Report: Almost President: The Agony of Defeat

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    CNN Special Report: Almost President: The Agony of Defeat 00:30
    In a series of interviews that took place over the last three years for the CNN Special Report "Almost President: The Agony of Defeat," finally, some tell their stories -- accounts of heartbreak, mistakes, missed opportunities -- but also of thrilling moments of pride and patriotism.
    Among the almost presidents featured: Mitt Romney, who truly believed he would win, only to lose a race that was a dead heat up until the last moment. John McCain was running against history, opposing Barack Obama, who had a clear shot at becoming America's first black president; so he threw the Hail Mary, choosing virtual unknown Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. Walter Mondale lost to a man whom he believed could have been losing his memory, but he would not say it. He lost to Ronald Reagan in the biggest landslide in American history. And Michael Dukakis refused to fight back in one of the dirtiest campaigns ever.
    Losing the presidency leads to years of self-analysis and second-guessing: Why did I do that? Why did I say that? John McCain confesses that he still beats himself up over mistakes he made in debates. Mitt Romney talks about what his most difficult challenges. Walter Mondale, at age 88, says, "You never get over it."
    Michael Dukakis, with characteristic blunt honesty, blurts out: "Losing sucks."
    What I found most remarkable was what they all had in common. Every almost president I spoke with believed that, in trying to communicate to the nation, he could not truly be himself.
    All thought they had to follow a script, choose their words with great care, be extremely careful lest the media seize on a mistake. Yet they also believe that if they'd let the voters see more of who they really are, they might have won.
    It's a conundrum we see playing out in politics today: How do you open a window to the American public, but not too much? How do you balance the need to self-censor with the need for authenticity? Or should you?
    Some of America's most talented political consultants -- people who have led these campaigns -- have powerful insights.
    Democrat James Carville says, "Once you've run for president, you want to be president until the day you die."
    Republican Mark McKinnon describes what kind of people run: "It's not normal to want to run for president," he says.
    And Democrat Bob Shrum says, "You can't run for president unless you're prepared to have your heart broken."
    Despite the failures and the disappointments, we asked an important question: Would any of the almost presidents do it again? This election season, Donald Trump has addressed it several times. Asked by Fox News' Megyn Kelly how he would feel if he lost, Trump said: "If I don't win, I will consider it to be a total and complete waste of time, energy and money."
    The men who did lose see it differently. They would do it all over again, they say, and with great pride.